Goo Goo Dolls recall the long journey from small clubs to big venues

When stardom finally hit for the Goo Goo Dolls in the mid-late 1990s, it came not a moment too soon. After 1995’s “A Boy Named Goo” became their first platinum album, they hit a new high in 1998 with the monster radio hit “Iris,” which was featured on the “City of Angels” film soundtrack and garnered Grammy nominations for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

Then came Napster and the steady erosion of record sales. “Dizzy Up the Girl,” the 1998 album that featured “Iris” as well as the top-10 hit “Slide,” was the last Goo Goo Dolls album to reach platinum status. As with many 1990s bands who used to sell millions, reaching 100,000 is now a high benchmark for this outfit that rose from the punk-rock clubs of Buffalo, N.Y., in the mid-1980s.

Still, they were lucky, all things considered. “I wish it would have happened five years sooner,” singer-guitarist John Rzeznik says with a laugh. But he knows that the opportunity to build a big fan base during the record industry’s last golden age is still paying dividends on tours like the one that brings them to the Statesman Skyline Theater on Sunday.

“We go out and play live, and that’s the majority of what we do now. And thank God we’re able to do that — that we still have a really solid audience that comes out,” he says.

“People still need human contact. I think the one thing that can’t be replicated in some sort of computer or virtual reality or whatever is being in a room with 5,000 people screaming, and the thump of a sound system and a light show, and somebody playing music in front of you, and everybody in that room having something in common.

“I think that that’s the kind of connection with other human beings that they really need. I mean, I need it!”

That’s been true for the Goo Goo Dolls since the beginning, when the crowd numbers were in the dozens or hundreds rather than thousands. The band first played Austin in 1991, and I interviewed Rzeznik for an American-Statesman preview of their appearance at the small Sixth Street bar Cannibal Club, an anchor of Austin’s alternative music scene at the time.

READ MORE: Our 1991 Goo Goo Dolls interview and feature

The band’s 1990 album “Hold Me Up” had helped them begin to break through to a national audience. Speaking by phone from an East Coast tour stop last week, Rzeznik says he and bassist Robby Takac recently were thinking back to how that album was a turning point for them.

“Robby and I were talking about it: That’s the album when we finally learned how to write songs,” he said. “Because the first two records were very punk.”

Yet those albums — the 1987 self-titled debut and 1989’s “Jed” — contained seeds of the Goo Goo Dolls’ looming transition toward more pop-oriented material that could play big on commercial rock radio.

“Even on those early records, there were always still hooks,” Rzeznik says. “It was important to have a hook, because we grew up listening to pop music on AM radio. When you listen to the old Husker Du and Replacements records and all that stuff, the music always had hooks in it.”

It’s telling that Rzeznik mentions the Replacements, who he cited as his favorite band in our 1991 interview. Back then, he told a great story about how the Replacements’ bus stopped on the highway when they saw the Goo Goo Dolls’ van had spun out in the snow en route to a winter show in Montreal. “Paul (Westerberg) and Slim (Dunlap) and the drummer hopped out of the bus and helped us push out of the snow bank,” Rzeznik marveled at the time.

“Yeah, I do remember that,” he said last week when reminded of the incident. “And also I remember going, ‘Man, I really hope we can get one of those buses one of these days!’”

That part worked out eventually. The journey had its rough spots: Disputes over songwriting led to a split with original drummer George Tutuska in the mid-’90s, and subsequent drummer Mike Malinin was dismissed in 2013 after 19 years. Rzeznik and Takac, who sings lead on some of the band’s songs, are the only two full-fledged band members now, though they tour as a five-piece with drummer Craig Macintyre, guitarist Brad Fernquist and keyboardist Korel Tunador.

Like many bands touring this summer, the Goo Goo Dolls have been playing a Prince song as a salute to the legendary Minneapolis musician who died in April. There’s a deeper connection in their case, though: On “Hold Me Up,” they covered Prince’s “Never Take the Place of Your Man,” recruiting dynamic Buffalo lounge singer Lance Diamond to sing it.

Diamond died in 2015, and the band started playing the song again in its live shows, with Takac singing lead. “For us, it was sort of like a tribute to him (Diamond),” Rzeznik says. “But then Prince died and it was like, oh my God.”

The Prince track was definitely a highlight of “Hold Me Up,” which still, well, holds up a quarter-century later. It’s quite different from the music the band makes now; influences of Rzeznik’s recent work with EDM act Cash Cash seeped into the Goo Goo Dolls’ new album “Boxes,” which came out on Warner Bros. in May.

Indeed, a fan review on the Allmusic website noted that if you played “Boxes” and “Hold Me Up” back-to-back, “it would be hard to believe it’s the same group.” Rzeznik welcomes that observation.

“At least we moved; that’s the important thing,” he says, noting that the band chose not to work with their longtime producer Rob Cavallo on “Boxes” in favor of trying out several new collaborators.

“No pun intended, but I’m not going to put myself in the same box that I always felt like I had to before,” he says. “I wanted to learn from other people. It was like, ‘Here’s what I’m doing. What would you do with it?’

“You learn from one guy, and then you go back to another session and you take what you learned, and it influences the session you’re doing with somebody else. It’s just more fun when you break it up into little pieces like that.”

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